(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 10, Number 3, 1991)


When the shovel blade cuts the ground, you feel something snap, something stronger than the roots that try to block the burial.

That night you awake on the verge of sleep convinced you heard a snarling animal running through the room.

Two nights later you dream a snake devours your rabbit as you look on impassively. Shocked into action, you pry at its jaws, but the serpent has turned into a Jethro Bodine-style lummox sitting stone solid, wide-eyed, oblivious to your struggles.

Later you fling the snake into a swimming pool, kicking it down the ladder each time it attempts to wriggle out, until finally you're convinced it's drowned. But somehow the reptile has managed to drain the water dry instead. You step back, take a breath, marvel at its ingenious tenacity, then with a shake of the head accept the killer back into your home.

You interpret the dream as guilt over the time you whacked your rabbit for wedging itself between the basement foundation and the plasterboard, forcing you to cut a hole in the drywall to pull him out. Or the numerous occasions you cursed the chewing machine for devastating one electrical cord after another.

But the message of the snake strikes deeper. Above the spot that holds the rabbit's towel-wrapped body, a notion takes hold, an urge too bound to bone and muscle to be termed an idea. Almost idly you begin aligning timbers from a forgotten child's fallen treehouse into a path leading from the grave at the foot of the woods to the crumbling burn barrel standing sentry at the edge of your yard.

As the days pass your path growns more complex, lined with rocks chipped from the frozen mud, carpeted with woodchips from an Irish landscaper. Somehow you're not embarassed as you turn his grave into a shrine, according Binky a respect in death unavailable in life. It's not so much the loss, you tell yourself, but an effort to bury the ugliness of the moment when the first shovelful of dirt darkened the fur he took such haughty pains to keep clean.

So you extend a second path at right angles to the first down the hill towards your swamp, allowing you to creep up on frogs and owls in the night without scattering the darkness with a flashlight--or to see if the deer will adhere to the magnetism of your atonement, bypassing the thistle-laden field for the ease of stamping question mark hoofprints into the soft, crumbled bark.

Even then you can't stop. You want to run the trail as far as the Grand River, clambering over wind and wood and water, then finally burrowing underground, where rabbits and snakes revel together in the fresh, damp smell of earth. You want to tame this patch of nature with your reassuring doglegs and coils, shaping it into a single wordless syllable against the inevitability of death.

When your friend the Whale rolls his eyes, grunting that you've turned your fields into "a desperate, twisted miniature golf course," you're pleased. You nod in approval, recalling the Mound Builders' Country Club in Newark, Ohio, which preserves for traversal by legions of spiked shoes and mechanized carts a skein of complicated prehistoric earthworks that elsewhere in the city were scrubbed from memory by the bulldozer and the plow.

Too bad your community couldn't grease the axle of your wheelbarrow with specific songs for hauling soggy woodchips over the ruins of an abandoned outbuilding, though if you'd undertaken anything more strenuous than toppling a few withered Fuller's Teasels with the toe of your Avias, "Clearing the Brush" from Rykodisc's Voices of the Rainforest cd might have helped.

This beautifully produced aural equivalent of a coffee-table book documents a day in the life of the Kaluli people of the New Guinea interior, from first dawn trill of stirring birds to night canopy symphony of frogs and insects. In between come songs of work and play, reminiscent of the straightforward music of Zaire's Aka Pygmies, another close-to-the soil folk whose every mundane task resonates with traditional symbolism and cosmology.

A one-of-a-kind, unclassifiable recording, Rainforest is partly ambient soundscape, partly a collection of songs whose not so subtle purpose is to chronicle a way of life which touches the environment only lightly even as the Kaluli satisfy their every need through the forest. You could seek a lesson here, but given our current romance with the warrior mentality, it seems specious to suggest we're in the mood to learn from anyone weaker than us.

In fact, this Mickey Hart-produced document is in danger of becoming a souvenir of a receding past, as plows and bulldozers paw the ground in anticipation of the bounties of world commerce. Should we pray for the protective founding of the Papua New Guinea Southern Highlands Province Country Club? Mind if we play through?

The proper antidote for sorrow and cynicism is Musical Feast: Mrs. Pottinger's High Note and Gayfeet Label (Heartbeat cd). Historical snapshot? Sure. But instead of poking dusty limbs from the cobwebs, this collection from the golden and twilight years of rock steady sports keenly honed, slicked up dancing shoes raring to cut deep impressions into the surface of your brain.

Sound quality, culled from the original master tapes, is exquisite. In contrast to the brittle edges of digital production, these recordings from the back of the Tip-Top Record Shop at 37 Orange Street, Kingston, bask in the kitchen table warmth of vacuum tube equipment technology. Sweet, fragile harmonies, bouncing bass lines and taffy-pull organ phrases contribute to the atmosphere of intimacy, but most of all label owner Sonia Pottinger's auteur's touch provides the sense of an unwavering attention to meticulous, if not loving, standards of quality.

All the hallmarks of a great pop collection are here: a novelty number worthy of an idiot savant (The Gaylads "ABC Rock Steady"), uncredited cover versions (appropriating both the Beatles and Nat King Cole), an early duff ditty by a future star (Judy Mowatt's "I Shall Sing"), verses to inspire (from Stranger Cole's "Let the Power Fall"), and flat out scorchers like the Conqueror's "Look Pon You" and Ken Boothe's "Say You." Whether you've heard these songs before or not, Mrs. Pottinger's assures you won't forget them.

Someone call Oliver Sacks to the phone. First came the shock of Roy Lema's springheeled Gaia. Now the thunderbolt of Touma (Mango cd) makes Mory Kante the second artist this year to awaken from the groggy tunnel of a succession of workmanlike releases to a blinding daylight disc of vibrant tunes.

Providing a dose of pop L-DOPA is backing vocalist Djanka Diabate, who helps thaw Mory, when, despite soaring melodies and an earnest delivery, the singer-bandleader still waxes emotionally remote on "Mankene" and "Bankiero". Cut after cut, in best '60s girl group style, Diabate adds enough angst and enthusiasm to kick nearly-there electrosnappy arrangements well over the top.

Touma owes more to American rock than any disc since Zani Diabate's 1986 homage to the dynamics of psychedelia. Though influences are plucked from the usual confusion of West African currents and back drafts, the kit drumming and guitar work are unmistakably metallic, especially on "Souma", where Carlos Santana unleashes a guru goosing guest solo.

For the most part, the African-American fusion goes smoothly. Konte's precise kora plucking blends remarkably well with the sequenced feel of the keyboards and MIDI drums. But the latest trend toward tick-tock electronic snare hits, which Touma dips into with cupped palms, flirts with obnoxious overkill.

Punks, as you recall, originally doubled drumbeats in service of sarcasm, disco to point out the double-yellow line to liquor fogged revelers, rap to ennunicate in-your-face lexical toughness. But what march tempo African beat gains in dancefloor immediacy comes at the expense of the overall power of the music.

African music's widespread appeal has been due in no small part to the rolling complexity of polyrhythms, which drum machine ethics sweep aside like grease pencil outlines around the figures in an impressionist painting. A nagging, telltale heartbeat undermines the pleasures of a number of otherwise worthy releases from Thomas Mapfumo's Chamunorwa to Loketo's Extra Ball. Enough is too much.

Fortunately no military tattoos mar Timbila by Eduardo Durao and Orquestra Durao, another GlobeStyle electrification project updating a traditional genre with drum kit and electric bass. This time the form is chopi, a native music of Mozambique centered around the a buzzy, mbira-timbred xylophone called the mbila--or timbila in plural.

Some of Timbila's rhythms have an out-of-place Balinese feel, presumably because the Indonesians who introduced metallophones to Africa left behind a few song forms as well. This is most pronounced on "Ngono Utane Vuna Kudima" (Come Help Me Cultivate the Ground), while a Mexican marimba style dominates "Magueleguele", a discourse on the hygenic hazards of communion with prostitutes.

As fusion, the experiment is less successful than Stella Chiweshe's Ambuya? or the Ben Mandelson-produced Jali Roll, where modern rhythms section sometimes drove, sometimes followed dazzling lead instruments. While "Chinguavilane'"s electronic pulse creates a nice earth/sky dichotomy, Timbila generally lacks a sense of synergistic interaction between old and new. But this slippage in no way detracts as Durao's light, almost scat lead vocals join hands with a Latin-sounding female chorus to encircle a thicket of rhythms as dense as Sunday afternoon miniature golfers.

Loketo, Extra Ball (Shanachie cd). Transcends the frenetic doldrums that hogtie a lot of zouk-inflected soukous via genre-shattering excellence. Though the packaging oozes up-to-date modernity, vocals are as close-knit rootsy as a reggae harmony trio, with nods to Franco, mbaqanga, Arrow and even Les Tetes Brulees. Expressive as the vocalists, with his bell-like vocabulary of shouts, shrieks, burrs, and arpeggiated harmonies, Diblo Dibala constitutes a one-man guitar orchestra. On an overcast day, Loketo's confections may threaten to dissipate into vapor. But when the sun is high these Zaireans make popular wisdom seem profound.

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, Chamunorwa (Mango cd). The edgy burst-transmissions of Mapfumo's early chimurenga singles seemed to be culminating in an elder statesman's ease with international success as of last year's Corruption. But nothing's taken for granted here. Eschewing pop conventions from structure to sonics, he rebuilds from the ground up on idiosyncratic foundations of texture, pulse, and, most of all, an unforgettable voice. Mapfumo has become one of the most compelling singers on the planet, propelling graceful, majestic chants with a focused shamanic intensity that has nothing in common with the melodrama excess that passes elsewhere for emotion. Chamunorwa is like a dash of clear water in a Coca-Cola world.

Annabouboula, Greek Fire (Shanachie cd). The joy of last year's In The Baths of Constantinople was a traditional-Greek/modern-mess epiphany more noisy collision than chance encounter. This time around with the same chaotic potential in place, the band opts for Euros over Eris, concocting bouncy but jolt-less dance music whose central thrust jabs tongue in cheek. While II'd Rather Set Myself on Fire" is a great song, irony or no, bending folk motifs to the will of house rather than disrupting both genres is a cakewalk more befitting an Aphrodite's Child than this band of Olympians. Hands on boulder, scale that hill!

Latino Latino--Music From the Streets of LA (Rhythm Safari). Disregard the title. These aren't field recordings of street corner buskers in the Original Music label mold but a studio tour of LA's contribution to the spirit of salsa. That said, evidence that NY isn't the axis mundi of Latino art rests with hep traditionalists Francisco Aguabella, ghost-fingered jazzsters Bobby Matos and Heritage, and most convincingly those bitten by the Big Sur bug. Louis Perez's "Rako" cultural smoothee recalls a Cuban Huayacaltia in its suite ambitions, while Bongo Logic, struck by sea spray, peppers the air with scads of trippy flute.

Jazayer plus Ali Jihad Racy (EarthBeat cd). Gorgeous middle eastern instrumentals for zither, flute, strings and hand drums by West Coast musicians aided by a Lebanese virtuoso. Filmi buffs will appreciate the witty pieces by Egyptian cinema composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, taarab enthusiasts the cross-cultural opening medley, and Mustapha heads the whole shebang. Ornate, even delicate, without falling through the cracks between the floorboards.


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